Talk proper, but listen more: Good communication is a two-way process, Headmaster

It can win pub arguments, resolve family feuds, improve your sex life, and generally help combat the loneliness of existence


Everyone, shut up now, because Peter Hyman, headmaster at an east London school and a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, has something to say: "Speaking eloquently is a moral issue. To be able to communicate your ideas and your passions is crucial to how [you] are going to be a success in the world." That's a good point, but... "If you can speak and articulate yourself properly," he adds, "that will happen." More debatable, but if I can just interject here a mo... "It's also the number one issue that employers put in all their surveys: they want good oral communication."

Anyway, to get a word in edgeways, I agree that Mr Hyman raises a good point. The ability to communicate is essential to success, and not simply in the comparatively piddling matter of job interviews. Good communication can win pub arguments, resolve family feuds, improve your sex life, and generally help combat the loneliness of existence. But communication, like the tango, takes two. So why is the onus always on young people, women, and people with regional accents to speak "properly"? Why don't those who already speak like a privately educated British male learn how to listen?

If we listened more attentively to the patterns of ordinary adolescent speech, for instance, it would be easy to dispel what Mr Hyman called "the myth of the grunting teenager" and appreciate what linguistic experts have been saying for years: young people aren't debasers of language – they're innovators on the cutting edge of speech. They invented "uptalk" and the "vocal fry", both of which have since migrated into the mainstream and even begun to feature in the speech of politicians. Today's teenage gobbledegook, in other words, is tomorrow's Prime Minister's Questions.

If we insist that all speakers must either conform to "proper" English as spoken by the social elite or graciously accept that their voices will be ignored, we aren't aiding communication. We're effectively excluding the most accurate descriptions of certain experiences from the conversation. To take one very common example, when women are advised that they must mimic male communication styles if they want to attain power in the workplace, it's supposed to help female advancement. But doesn't it also ensure that the issues important to women remain unspoken?

Luckily, the ability to speak well and command an audience can be nurtured through education. Unluckily, small classroom sizes and school debating societies are much more common in fee-paying schools than they are in the state sector. And, in any case, an unshakeable belief in the value of your own words is usually just a facet of good old-fashioned privilege. The real communicative advantage that proper English speakers have over everyone else is not the clarity innate to their language, but the confidence instilled by their upbringing.

Let's get personal about work

Now that Nigel Evans, the former deputy speaker, has been cleared of all charges, we must find another explanation for what his lawyers called the "high watermark of over-friendly, inappropriate behaviour by a drunken man".

Could it be the murky, after-hours Commons culture that is to blame for leading MPs astray? Amusing as it is to imagine that Friday night at the Strangers' Bar is a debauch fit for Caligula, such bad behaviour isn't a Westminster-specific problem. British people like a drink, no? And, according to one recent survey, two-thirds of us have also had an office romance. Even without factoring in all the unrecorded failed flirtations, that's a whole lot of unprofessional behaviour.

These days, we're all blurring boundaries between the professional and the social, but that's not necessarily the workers' fault. Once, five or six o'clock marked the end of the working day and a chance to get as far away from the office as possible, to let off steam and socialise. Now longer office hours mean there's only work and working late followed by work drinks with work colleagues.

The solution? Make work do double-duty as relaxation, turn your colleagues into your friends and your boss into your lover. The problem? When you get suspended without pay pending disciplinary action, there's no one left to take you out for a commiseration drink.

It's a shoe-off moment

Remember Muntadhar al-Zaidi? In fairness, his name is much less memorable than the size 10, brown lace-up he hurled at President George W Bush's head. Following that 2008 incident, Zaidi served nine months in prison, and his shoes were destroyed by Iraqi and American security agents, yet "shoeing", the peculiar form of protest Zaidi popularised, is still going strong.

Just last week in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton, a former US secretary of state, had to duck during a conference speech, to avoided a shoe missile launched by an unidentified middle-aged female. Other post-2008 shoe targets have included Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiaboa, former Australian prime minister John Howard and our very own Tony Blair – although that incident at a book-signing in Ireland also involved raw eggs.

Back in 2008, cultural commentators gave long-winded explanations, relating to the Arabic concept of the "unclean". Surely, this is a gesture that's unambiguous in any culture. Shoeing is not to be condoned but the impulse to throw something – anything – at the face of a speaking politician is both timeless and international.

Going underground

I've eaten at least two meals a day on public transport for most of my working life, so when I heard about "Women Who Eat on Tubes" – the blog that stranger-shames women by posting pictures of them without permission, my first thought was: "Where's my royalty cheque?" My second thought was: "Why would anyone find this embarrassing?" If you consider the sight of someone eating a Pret salad wrap noteworthy, then, my friend, you've never lived. In my time on TfL, I've seen it all: a ferret on a string, City boys stripping on the safety poles and a Terry Wogan-lookalike flicking through hardcore porn as though it was Metro. One time, a man in the next carriage stuck his didgeridoo (not a euphemism) through the adjoining window and began to play a tune. They don't call it "underground" for nothing.

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